Jack Wang interviewed by Mark Sampson
Jack Wang is the recent recipient of the $10,000 Danuta Gleed Literary Award, which honours the best debut short story collection in Canada, for his book We Two Alone (House of Anansi Press, 2020). While Wang is originally from Vancouver and his collection is published in Canada by House of Anansi’s Astoria short story imprint, he and his tales are deeply transnational. Wang did his undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto, his MFA and PhD in the United States, and he has held the David T.K. Wong Creative Writing Fellowship at the University of East Anglia in England. He currently teaches creative writing at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York. We Two Alone, comprised of six short stories and a novella set over the last 100 years, traverses the landscapes of Canada, China, England, South Africa and the United States.
Mark Sampson: The first and last stories in this collection seem to be in conversation with the works of William Shakespeare. The latter, the title novella “We Two Alone,” takes its name from a line in King Lear, and the former, “The Valkyries,” about a young Asian kid who sneaks his way onto a girl’s hockey team, uses crossdressing/gender disguise that is reminiscent of As You Like It. Can you talk about the influence of Shakespeare on your own creativity as you explore various tragedies, comedies and histories in your own book?
Jack Wang: I appreciate that you recognize “The Valkyries” harks back to Elizabethan drama and the gender-bending aspects of Shakespeare. I wouldn’t say Shakespeare has been a particular influence on my writing, though “influence” is so myriad that it’s hard to tell. The book’s title story, the novella “We Two Alone,” is about a Chinese American actor, Leonard, trying to make it in the world of acting, to break into western storytelling and the western narrative, and no one represents that canon more than Shakespeare. Leonard wants to be an actor and wants to be accepted and welcomed into that western tradition. Every immigrant writer or minority writer, I think, feels that tension of being both inside and outside of that.
When I was writing “The Valkyries,” I was thinking not just of Shakespeare but also of the tropes of medieval romance. In fact, an earlier iteration of the story, published in The Humber Literary Review, was a bit more hyperbolic or exaggerated in terms of playing with those tropes. But when I put it in the book, my Canadian editor asked if I would revise it to be more realistic and more in line with the rest of the stories.
But yes, the final version of “The Valkyries” does deal with the emasculation of the Asian male who is relegated, through restaurant or laundry work, to “feminized” forms of labour. But my work wanted to challenge that notion as well: why is being seen as female a bad thing? It really challenges the boundaries around race, class, gender, and sexuality, and does this through what Nelson aspires to do, which is to play hockey, a very Canadian thing. Nelson’s desire to play the game runs parallel to his desire to belong and to break taboos along the way.
Sampson: One thing readers will notice is that the stories in this collection span nearly a century of time, and are more or less organized in chronological order. Were they written this way? Were you conscious early on that this book would show a historical arc of racism across multiple epochs?
Wang: Yes, ultimately the stories are in chronological order. When I started these stories, each one was a discrete interest. The first one I wrote was “Allhallows,” which is about a couple in a failed marriage, but it’s also about a hockey player, because I wanted to upend some familiar expectations around what Asian North Americans actually do, or aspire to do. The second story I wrote was “The Valkyries,” and I guess that was when I first got an inkling that I could join these two “hockey stories,” set nearly a century apart, together. The next story was “The Night of Broken Glass,” set near the mid-point of the 20th century, and that was when I started to see more actively how these stories could work together.
Interestingly enough, after the book sold, my Canadian editor asked me to add a story to the collection to fill a gap that was in the manuscript. At the time, there was no story between “The Night of Broken Glass,” set in the 1930s, and “Belsize Park,” set in the 1980s. After my editor pointed out the gap, I of course couldn’t un-see it and I knew that I needed to fix that. She charged me with a task: Write a story set in the 50s, 60s or 70s to fill that gap. She didn’t say what kind of story to write; it was up to me to find a story to tell. I settled on South Africa, as I was fascinated about the Chinese diaspora living there during the rise of apartheid. By that point, I was thinking very strategically about the book as a whole – why not venture to more continents, be more global in scope?
Sampson: Well that’s another thing readers will notice: the wide array of settings for these stories. You’ve got tales set in Canada, China, Austria, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States. This really highlights your core theme of the collection, that of the transnational nature of racism, especially anti-Asian racism. How did you come to taking this prismatic approach to settings and their impact on discrimination, oppression, and even genocide?
Wang: That’s a great question. I feel like there are certain narratives about being Asian in general and Chinese in particular, about coming to North America, that have been done, and I didn’t want to write those kinds of stories. Moreover, I spent many years writing about my own experiences, sort of semi-autobiographical, but I just found that they were more interesting when refracted through other times and places. I wasn’t really conscious of this until I wrote “The Night of Broken Glass.” The idea came to me when I was in Shanghai for the World Exposition in 2010 and I saw a plaque at the Israeli pavilion dedicated to Ho Feng-Shan, the man who was the consul-general of China in Vienna during the time of Kristallnacht. It fascinated me that I had never heard of him, and I began to wonder why I hadn’t heard of him, and so I just began to follow my own fascination with the Chinese diaspora more generally. And the more I did, the more I began to ask: Why haven’t I read more about the Chinese elsewhere, in Africa, in Europe? So I wrote stories about the Chinese diaspora in other places because there seemed to be a dearth of them.
Of course, when I say Chinese diaspora, I’m only nibbling around the edge of that. It’s a vast phenomenon, and I’m just presenting a small slice of it.
Sampson: How challenging was it write about such a wide array of settings, including places you yourself may not have ever lived in or even visited? How concerned were you about actually representing these places?
Wang: For sure. When people talk about appropriation, they often talk of writing about characters who simply don’t look like one’s self. But for me, it was a question of writing about Chinese people like me, but ones who live in different places and different points in history than I do. What right do I have to write about South Africa, a place I haven’t even been? What right do I have to fictionalize the lives of people who were in Vienna during Kristallnacht? When it comes to this sort of thing, it isn’t so much a question of whether you can or not, but rather what’s your intention, and can you do justice to the subject? You have to do the homework and do the research to make your stories as authentic as you can. I knew I had to do the research, to get people who are more expert than me in certain areas to read the stories, to provide feedback and help me get them right. I feel like the first person I have to convince is myself, as I am the toughest judge about whether a story is authentic, whether it lives. But if I can convince myself that these stories feel authentic, then maybe I can convince others.
Sampson: One of the many impressive feats in this collection is how many different occupations your characters have. We’ve got a couple of doctors, a teacher, a student at Oxford who helps his parents run their takeaway shop, a semi-pro hockey player, and, most impressively in the final novella, two struggling actors trying to hang on to their dream. What sort of work was involved in creating characters with such varied career aspirations and experiences?
Wang: Part of it was very deliberate. I wanted to show the Chinese diaspora across classes, ambitions, and occupations. Sometimes we have familiar ideas of what “all Chinese” want to aspire to, and I wanted to show many walks of life in the Chinese diaspora. To do that, it frequently required research. For example, I didn’t know anything myself about Chinese takeaways in the UK. I actually went to the British library’s dissertation database online and read some pretty obscure dissertations from the 1990s on Chinese takeaways. People had interviewed families running these shops, detailing the racism they experienced, the bricks thrown through the windows, etc. There was so much there, the little things that helped to authenticate my story.
Sampson: In an interview you gave your alma mater, Innis College at the University of Toronto, you talked about the parallels between the title story, “We Two Alone,” the actors’ struggles as artists, “feeling lost in the wilderness” and the struggles of being a writer. Can you talk a little bit more about those parallels?
Wang: I have not been an actor myself, but I started writing as an undergraduate at University of Toronto, so I was probably 20 years old when I took my first fiction workshop. We Two Alone came out when I was 48, so it was a pretty long road. I did an MFA; I did a PhD; I wrote some novels that I put in the proverbial drawer. All that time I was yearning, as every artist does, to reach my goal. And I also faced, during that whole time, the doubt that every artist wrestles with: am I able to do this, was this a foolish choice, have I wasted my life? [Laughing] You know, all those “little questions” that keep you up at night. So the struggle of being an artist very much informs the main couple in “We Two Alone.” I wanted Leonard’s choice to be fundamental – was he going to choose art or was he going to choose love? I did read some heartbreaking articles about people who had been left by spouses because they were still chasing their dream and their spouses had just had it. It was pretty painful to imagine that.
Now that I’m here, on the other side, I’m ultimately glad my earlier work wasn’t published. I could have, but as Flaubert says, “talent is long patience.” In one way it was forced upon me, but in the end I’m really glad for that patience.
Sampson: You have a novel on the go as well, a book about Chinese Canadians serving in the Second World War. Can you tell us a little bit more about its story and its themes?
Wang: The novel is called The Riveters. At the very outset of the war, Chinese Canadians were briefly admitted to the military, but then Ottawa realized that if they were allowed to serve they would then demand citizenship and the franchise, so then they were barred from serving.
Early in the novel, which begins in Vancouver, a group of Chinese Canadians work on a rivet gang in a shipyard. They are eventually admitted to the military and go off to various theatres of war. One character, based on a real person named Richard Mar, is the only Chinese Canadian to be part of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. Another character winds up being a part of something called Special Operations Executive, meant to foment resistance behind enemy lines. This started out mostly in Europe but then it moved to Asia, and so the military suddenly realized it needed Asians who could speak the language. So the novel hinges on that irony, that these Chinese Canadians were unwanted and then wanted. It’s another way in which I’m trying to examine the Chinese diaspora in a different light. People don’t often think of Chinese Canadians as war heroes. You don’t necessarily see Asians or Chinese North Americans represented in war movies, in heroic narratives with these overly masculine roles. So again, I just wanted to shine a different light on how the Chinese diaspora is represented.
Mark Sampson is the author six books, most recently the novel All the Animals on Earth (Wolsak & Wynn, 2020). Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.
- House of Anansi Press.
- Ian Colford reviews We Two Alone in The Miramichi Reader (July 2021).
- Townshend Walker reviews We Two Alone in the New York Journal of Books.
- Open Book asks Jack Wang about teaching Creative Writing.
- Photo of Richard Mar at Library and Archives Canada.
- The Humber Literary Review.
Header photo of Holocaust memorial, Judenplatz, Vienna, by Debra Martens.